Ganga Aarti on the Ganga Ghat in Varanasi

Ganga Aarti on the Ganga Ghat in Varanasi

Dhamek Stupa at Sarnath

Dhamek Stupa at Sarnath

Kashi Vishwanath Temple of Varanasi

Kashi Vishwanath Temple of Varanasi

Friday, April 2, 2010

Places to See in Varanasi - Baba Gorakhnath's Tila in Varanasi

In the beginning of the 11th century, Saint Gorakhnath(popularly known as baba Gorakhnath) established the 'Gorakhnath Ka Tila' in the Maldahiya area of Varanasi. Baba Gorakhnath belonged to the Nath community which believed in the 'yogini Kaul Marg'. The people of this community believed in the nine spiritual men or Nine Natha's who provided spiritual direction to the community.According to the followers of this sect, Lord Shiva himself was the first 'Nath' from whom the community originated.Towards the beginning of the 10th century, Matsyendranath worked in spreading the spiritual tenets of this sect.

In the 11th century , baba Gorakhnath followed in the footprints of Matsyendranath and made valuable contribution in spreading the Nath sect.By virtue of his loving nature and selfless service, he provided direction to the contemporary society at large. The key aspect of this belief system was that, it did not distinguish between the rich and poor, wak and strong and did not subscribe to elaborate ritualistic beliefs. He travelled across India to propagate this new thought. He also elaborated on this new sect and its beliefs in two treatises, the 'Gorakhshasiddhanta' and the 'Yogamarg'.

According to baba Gorakhnath, when a disciple manages to awaken his 'Kundalini', he attains a state of perpetual happiness and enlightenment and he merges with the omnipresent and omniscient Shiva.

Baba Gorakhnath set up his 'math'(or mutt) in maldahiya in Varanasi which came to be known as 'Gorakhnath ka Tila'. In this math, the followers worship Shiva, Matsyendranth and the 'Charan Paduka' or the wooden slippers of Baba Gorakhnath. The math also runs a school that serves to spread education among the poor masses. Baba Gorkahnath also established the Kali math near Lakshmikund, where he himself installed the idol of goddess Kali -one of the forms of mother goddess Shakti.

The prominent saints of the Nath sect were believed to practice the 'Abhed Marg', a system of strict rules to attain enlightenment. They did not follow or believe in the contemporary society's rules and beliefs. They even adopted a way of life that was considered outrageous by the contemporary hindu society.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Jagamwadi Math in Varanasi

The Jangamwadi math (pronounced as ‘mutt’) belongs to the ViraShaiva sect and is one of the most prominent math in Varanasi. A ‘math’ is a center of learning and research lead by a Peethadhipati or a great leader and every ‘math’ and its followers owe their allegiance to a specific religious thought and way of worship and conduct in life. Shaiva Dharma is believed to have promoted the worship of Shiva in his many different forms and so were born many sects who were Shiva believers. Of these many sects, was born the Virashaiva sect or Lingayat who are also known as ‘Jangam’. The Virashaiva sect was prominent in the southern part of India.According to the Vasava Purana, the Virashaiva sect was started by Allabhprabhu and his student – a Brahmin by the name Vasava who was a courtier in the reign of Kalachuri. According to the spiritual leaders of the Virshaiva sect, five great spiritual souls enriched the virshaiva dharma through their teachings at different times in its long history. They were Renukacharya, Darukacharya, Ekormacharya, Panditaradhya and Vishwaradhya. It is believed that these five great teachers were born from the unique Linga of Shiva. And these teachers established the seat of Virshaiva learning at Rambhapuri(Mysore), Ujjain, Ukhimath(Kedarnath), Shree Shail and Kashi (Varanasi). Over the years, the Virshaiva sect was divided in to four sub sects – the Jangam, Sheelvant, Vanik and Panchamshali. The literature of the Jangam or Lingayat sect is predominantly composed in the Kannada Language, a language spoken majorly in the Karnataka state of India.
As per the literature available at the Jangamwadi Math, it is said that the Math in Varanasi was established in the Sat Yuga. However, historical records indicate that the Jangamwadi math was established in Kashi somewhere between 759-65 AD. Jagadguru Shivacharya Vishwaradha Mahaswami is said to have set up the math in Kashi. At present, the Jangamwadi math or mutt is situated close to the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple in the Godowlia area of Varanasi.
The Jangamwadi Math is also known as the Jana Simhasan or Jana Peeth. The word ‘Jangam’ means ‘one who knows Shiva’ and ‘Wadi’ means ‘place of living’. Therefore, the place where those who are ‘aware’ of the Shiva stay, came to be known as Jangamwadi. At present, Shri Jagadguru Shivacharya Dr. Chandrasekhar Shivacharya Mahaswami is the 86th ‘Peethadhipati’ or the leader of the math in Kashi.
Deepawali/Diwali and Mahashivaratri are the major festivals of this prominent math. Millions of devotees from across India and the globe congregate at the Matha during these festivals. The Shiva Linga and Jana Peeth established by Jagadguru Vishwaradhya at the Jangamwadi math are the main cornerstones of religious faith and focus. Apart from the many ‘Sadhu’s (saints) who stay at the math, students also reside here. At present, around 50 students reside at the Jangamwadi math where they actively pursue the study of Vedas, Sanskrit and the scriptures.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Brief History of Varanasi

As per recorded history, the foundation of modern Varanasi was laid by a man called Mansa Ram.

Mansa Ram worked for Meer Rustam Ali till 1738, who had bought the rights for the control and administration of the Varanasi(or Benaras) region from the then Nawab of Awadh. The Varanasi region was part of the kingdom of the Nawab of Audh who resided in Lucknow.Meer Rustam Ali had paid the Nawab of Audh, a sum of 8 lakh rupees or 8 hundred thousand rupees for the control over the region.Mansa Ram, it is believed, bought the rights for the Varanasi region from the Nawab by paying a astronomical sum of 12 lakh rupees. However, Mansa Ram passed away very soon and his son Balwant Singh came to occupy his position. Balwant Singh administered the Banaras region from 1738-39 to 1770. And it was during his rule that in 1754, the majestic fort at Ramnagar near Varanasi was built. The roal family of Varanasi still stays at the Ramnagar fort.

After the death of Balwant Singh in 1770, Maharaja Chet Singh took over the reign in Benaras.On the 18th of Aug in 1781, Warren Hastings, a British governor general plotted against Chet Singh and forced him to give up his Kingship replacing him instead with his nephew, a very young Mahip Narayan Singh who was made the king. Later Vibhuti Narayan Singh became the King of Varanasi.IN 1916, King Vibhuti Narayan Singh donated many acres of land at the behest of Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya to set up the world famous Banaras Hindu University.

During the sepoy mutiny of 1857 against the british rule, the dissent of soldiers at Banaras was soon suppressed. However, the short lived agitation had served a warning to the britishers and they converted the Banaras military post in to a full fledged military headquarters and they monitored the security of the GT road from this post and troops to the north and western fronts were always sent from Banaras.

After the independence of India in 1947, Banaras(Varanasi) became part of the state of Uttar Pradesh of the republic of India.

The present King of Kashi(or Varanasi) is Kunwar Anant Narayan Singh who resides at the Ramnagar Fort. He actively presides over the major cultural fests of Varanasi like the Ramlila and Naag Nathaiya. Although a ceremonial figure, he is respected by the people of Varanasi.

Monday, March 22, 2010

82.5 degree longitude - the exact spot lies in Vindyachal near Varanasi

The Indian Standard Time is the time observed through out India and is calculated on the basis of the 82.5 degree longitude.This line passes through several major Indian cities, however the Vindhyachal town, just west of the town of Mirzapur near Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh is most cited. The longitude difference between Vindhyachal and the United Kingdom's Royal Observatory at Greenwich translates to an exact time difference of 5 hours 30 minutes.

Vindhyachal as I have mentioned in one of my earlier posts is a pilgrimage town where millions of devotees from allover India gather to worship the mother goddess Vindhyavasini, an avatar of Shakti or Goddess Durga.During the Navratas, the Vindhyachal town is flooded with worshippers of goddess Shakti as Vindhyachal Devi is one of the 'Shakti Peeth's' where the goddess is believed to reside in one of her sevral forms.
The exact spot that denotes the 82.5 degree longitude lies at a distance of around two hundred meters west of the Amravati cross road in Vindhyachal on the Mirzapur -Allahabad road. There is a billboard at the spot that marks the unique location of the 82.5 degree.

The interesting part is that the same place i.e Vindhyachal(and not the same spot actually) has been used as a reference point since centuries for calculating time by Indians.The traditional Hindu calendar or the Panchang has always used Vindhyachal as areference point for time calculations.This is a remarkable proof of the development of astronomical sciences in ancient India.

There is also another interesting legend associated with the Shiva temple that lies close to the main pilgrimage site of Vindhyachal. Popular folklore has it that the Vindhyeshwar Mahadeva Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva is the site where the ten headed demon King, Ravana established a 'Shiva Linga' to worship Lord Shiva. Now Ravana as per the Hindu epic Mahabharata was a extremely learned and enlightened Shiva bhakta and had the most profound knowledge of almost all the branches of learning.And he is believed to have used the place as reference point for the standard time measurements during his rule. The temple is around a mile away from the now acknowledge and marked spot though. While there isn't any scientific evidence to prove the veracity of the above beliefs, the existence of the legend and the location of the temple at a place so close to the 82.5 degree longitude cannot be a sheer coincidence.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Various Religious Organizations in Varanasi and their activities

Varanasi is home to a large number of religious and spiritual organizations representative of the many communities in India.

Arya Samaj is located in Bulanala and Lallapur.Bharat Dharma Mahamandal was started in 1857 by Pandit Din Dayalu Sarma of Punjab and later on it came under the influence of Swami Jnanananda.Located at Lahurabir, it is publishing many valuable works.

Parivrajak Mandal was started around 1923 in Lakhsmi Kund.It is aimed at spreading the reiligous and Dharma feelings in rural areas through its team of Sadhus.Garibdas Mangal Math is running Dayalu Vidyalaya at Bans Phatak.

A number of buddhist monasteries existed in Varanasi and Sarnath in the early years of Indian history. The chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang refers to thirty monasteries in Varanasi alone. At present there are there Buddhist monasteries one near Kashi Vidyapeeth and two near Maldahiya.

Chintamani Parsvanath Jain Mandir at Ram ghat is a matha(mutt) belonging to Jain traditions.

Among other religious faiths, christian missionaries may be found working in Varanasi. There are six religious institutions belonging to Sunni muslims and two belonging to Shias.

The various Hindu Mathas or mutts in Varanasi played a very critical role during the tumultous period of Muslim invasions and muslim oppressive rule from the beginning of the 11th century to the middle of the 18th century.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Varanasi Dons a Festive Look in the Navratras

Navratri or Navratra is an important festival that is celebrated by the Hindus in Varanasi with great fervour and devotion. The period of nine days(hence the name 'navratra') is marked by fasting by the people especially the women folk and visits to the temples of goddess Shakti or Durga in the city of Varanasi. The fasting during the Navratri or the 'nine nights' is to propitiate the mother goddess Shakti as she is endowed with the power to grant any wish and to remove the obstacles from the road to success. Most of the Hindus abstain from eating non-vegetarian food, drinking liquor, indulging in sexual intercourse during this period. Some believers continue to fast over the entire nine days period surviving only on fruits and other items that are considered 'satvik' or pure.

In Varanasi, devotees throng to the temples of the many avatars of the mother goddess Shakti during the entire nine days period. The Durga Temple at Durgakund is considered to be the oldest of the Shakti temples in the city and is highly renowned and revered. Queues of devotees extending for more than a mile can be seen at the temple on the first and the last day of the Navratri festival.

Vindhyachal, a temple of the goddess shakti in the nearby district of Mirzapur is around 75 kms from Varanasi.It is a 'Shakti Peeth' - one the most revered and sacred spots of worship devoted to the mother goddess Shakti, who is believed to have chosen to stay at the spot after killing the demon king - Mahisashura. The temple is visited by millions of devotees from around the country during the navratri festival. Vindhyanchal is an important pilgrimage center and is also known as Vindhyavasini Devi. The other two temples at Vindhyanchal, the Ashtabhuja temple and the Kali Khoh temple are situated closeby and they form the 'sacred triangulation' or the 'Trikon Parikrama' which means that the devotees visit each of these three temples to complete a triangular journey on foot.

For the nine days of Navratri, Varanasi reverberates with devotional songs dedicated to the mother goddess Durga and the city dons a festive look as the end of the navratri period draws near. On the eight or the ninth day of the navratri festival in Varanasi, large fairs are held close to some of the Shakti tamples and families throng to these fairs.Virtually, the entire Varanasi city congregates at these fairs which come alive the hundred of small shops, hawkers selling a variety of popular merchandise and then of course, there are the joy rides and toy trains for the kids.

"Jai Mata Di' (meaning 'Praise be to the Mother goddess') reverberates in the air in Varanasi and the atmosphere radiates with the collective devotion of the people of Varanasi.
Jai Mata Di!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Tourist Spots in Varanasi - Saint Kabir Das Memorial Temple at Kabirchaura in Varanasi

Of the many saints who lived and taught in Varanasi, the name of Kabir Das towers above the rest for his revolutionary thoughts and preaching’s as early as the 1440 AD. Legend has it that a Muslim weaver couple of Varanasi found an infant beside a lake in Kashi(Varanasi) and named him Kabir. Though some people believed him to be the son of high caste Brahmin who had cast him away. There is no concrete evidence on the exact place of birth of Kabir or who were the original parent’s? Nevertheless, Kabir Das was revered equally by the contemporary Hindus and Muslims.

Saint Kabir Das was a mystic poet whose work had a marked influence on the Bhakti Movement. His work is also included in the Guru Granth Sahib – the holy book of Sikhism and Kabir Das is considered one of the 15 Sikh Bhagats. The ‘Kabir Panthi’s” is a religious community that considers Kabir Das as its founding father and proudly carry forward his legacy even today. Kabir’s teachings are mainly in the form of two-line verses called ‘Dohas’. The basic religious principles he espoused are simple. According to Kabir, all life is interplay of two spiritual principles. One is the personal soul (Jivatma) and the other is God (Paramatma). It is Kabir's view that salvation is the process of bringing into union these two divine principles. Kabir Daspreached the oneness of all religions and was not supportive of the meaningless rituals of Hinduism or the mindless repetition of Islam. His writings were mainly based on the concept of reincarnation and karma. Kabir Das never really abandoned his worldly life to become a saint, choosing instead to balance his life between a traditional household person and a mystic who lived his life in a simplistic manner.
Kabit Das composed poems that were full of praise for the True Guru or Satguru. He never spoke of any human gurus in his poems. Being illiterate, his verses were always spoken in the vernacular Hindi as he could never express himself in writing. Sant Kabir’s greatest composition is the ‘Bijak’ (the seedling) – a collection of poems that resonate with the idea of the fundamental one. Kabir Das advocated the ‘Sahaja’ Path or the simple/natural way to oneness with the supreme being rather than following of complex religious rites.
Kabis Das left for his heavenly abode in the year 1518 at a place called Magahar near Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. His mortal remains are preserved in a Samadhi-Mandir in the Kabir Chaura area of Varanasi. Since he was revered by both the Hindus and Muslims, after his death a Samadhi-Mandir was erected on the order of the ruler of Kashi –Raja Veerdev Singh Ju. This was done to appease both his Hindu and Muslim followers. This samadhi-mandir is built on 1600 square feet (40 X 40) of land in a square shape with baluwa stones. The chauki (the part of the temple just outside the main entrance and running across the periphery of the temple) is done in black and white marble and the temple’s ghanta-ghar is made of beautifully carved stone. The temple’s roof is considered a unique and outstanding piece of architecture. The temple’s dome and minaret are evidence of rare works of architecture and workmanship. The samadhi-mandir’s courtyard is now used for holding special ceremonies.